If cable news is any indicator, the first horseman of the apocalypse has arrived, and it’s in the form of the murderous plague Ebola. Suddenly, the realistic and terrifying 2011 pandemic film Contagion is appearing on my cable listings, and CNN is calling Ebola — I’m not kidding — “the ISIS of biological agents.”
To be fair, Ebola is pretty frightening. The outbreak in West Africa is an appalling tragedy, and exposes gaping flaws in our global public-health systems. Ebola is a horrible disease and an awful way to die, which in itself is terrifying. But the panic around Ebola is mostly a cynical attempt by hack news agencies to stoke their ratings.
The vast majority of the people who have contracted Ebola have been in three countries: Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. Of the nearly 9,000 cases of Ebola worldwide, as of this writing, approximately 17 have been found outside these countries. Of these 17, four people have died — one in the US, two in Spain, and one in Germany (you can get updates on the numbers from this incredibly useful page on The New York Times). The disease is particularly violent and frightening, but to give you an idea, anywhere from 3,000 to 50,000 Americans die from the standard flu each year.
To get Ebola, you have to come into direct contact with the bodily fluids of someone who is not only infected, but is showing symptoms — something which usually takes a minimum of eight days after exposure to the virus. Once they’re showing symptoms, the virus becomes contagious, with each patient infecting about two healthy people. This isn’t great — and it’s why quarantine of infected patients is so important — but many other diseases, like SARS, measles, and the mumps, are significantly more infectious. Basically, unless you have been to West Africa in the last few weeks, or have come into close physical contact with someone who has not only been to West Africa, but is already exhibiting flu-like symptoms, then you’ve basically got no chance of getting Ebola.
Obviously, travelers have more reason to be nervous since they don’t know whether the people sitting beside them on the plane have been to West Africa recently; it may not be immediately obvious if passengers are displaying flu-like symptoms to the flight crew and their fellow passengers. This is why a lot of people are proposing that we cut flights from the US to West Africa. The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof explained on his Facebook page why that is a bad idea:
“Ending those flights would make it harder to fight Ebola in West Africa, by curbing travel by health care specialists and shipment of supplies. And ultimately the only way to end Ebola in America is to end it in Africa. The great risk for America is not that an occasional traveler will bring the virus, but that it will become endemic in West Africa or that it will spread to Mali, Guinea Bissau, Ghana, Senegal and other countries. If that happens, it will have more channels to America. So the way to stop it in the US is to stop it in West Africa, and that means keeping those links open.”
Fortunately, the White House isn’t seriously considering a travel ban, and instead is taking the much wiser step of screening passengers for Ebola at the five airports that bring in most of the nation’s visitors from West Africa.
First, unless you’re a health worker, don’t travel to West Africa, specifically in the three affected countries — Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Travelers to the Democratic Republic of Congo have been issued a travel warning by the CDC as well. Nigeria had a much smaller outbreak, but the CDC believes they have successfully contained their outbreak, and has lowered the travel alerts to that country to “Practice Usual Precautions.”
Second, if you’re not going to those places, don’t panic. You’ve got an extremely low risk of getting Ebola if you haven’t been to these places, and the best response to the disease’s outbreak is to contain it in West Africa, and not to whip the entire world into a hysterical frenzy. The best thing you can do is educate yourself by checking out the CDC’s website and reading up on how the disease works, and then remaining calm about it. If you are planning on traveling, check their travel alert pages to make sure the country you are traveling to hasn’t been added to the list. Otherwise, just practice good hygiene while you’re traveling.